The production-company powerhouse Blumhouse makes all manner of horror films following all sorts of genre traditions, from found footage (Paranormal Activity; Unfriended) to revivals of classic characters (David Gordon Green’s Halloween sequels; the upcoming Invisible Man re-do) to auteur-driven passion projects (Jordan Peele’s Get Out; M. Night Shyamalan’s Split). So it’s impressive that they’ve also started a cottage industry of horror movies that adhere to no particular trends. Instead, these projects pursue zesty gimmicks like Groundhog Day as a slasher movie (Happy Death Day), Final Destination crossed with a familiar party game (Truth or Dare), or a genteel, campy old TV series reconfigured as a menacing thriller.
That last project is the new movie Fantasy Island — or, as the trailers and credits boldly proclaim, Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island. Like Truth or Dare, which was also affixed with the Blumhouse possessive, the new movie comes from writer-director Jeff Wadlow, star Lucy Hale, and a lot more flash than sense. Plainly put, it isn’t very good. Yet there’s something disposably entertaining about its mercenary approach.
Fantasy Island’s basic premise comes straight from the TV show: a group of strangers arrive on a mysterious island via plane and are welcomed by Mr. Roarke (Michael Peña), who promises they will each have a single fantasy fulfilled. Gwen (Maggie Q) wants to live a key event of her life over again. Patrick (Austin Stowell) hopes to simulate the military career he never had. Melanie (Hale) seeks a simulation of revenge on an old nemesis from high school. And JD (Ryan Hansen) brings his little bro Brax (Jimmy O. Yang) on a standard partying jag straight out of a beer commercial. There are unexpected connections and a general monkey’s-paw be-careful-what-you-wish-for dynamic, just like the 1978-1984 series sometimes provided. Unlike the TV show, though, the movie is more attuned to the possibility that these fantasies could lead to someone’s bloody demise. Sure enough, almost immediately, these hastily commenced fantasies start to take questionable turns.
Fantasy Island isn’t especially scary, but scares don’t usually seem like the point of a Blumhouse horror gimmick. At their best, these movies have the energy and shamelessness of a carnival ride, where the enthusiasm means more than the atmosphere. Fantasy Island knowingly steals from everywhere, and sometimes cleverly incorporates its derivativeness into the filmmaking. JD and Brax go to a party with the saturated colors (and tan lines) of a McG music video from 1999. Patrick’s military adventure has a desaturated war-movie palette. Melanie’s torture fantasy has the bleachy, grimy look of a Saw movie. Different sections of the island exist in different genres, which eventually misfire and cross over into each other’s space.
With his four converging storylines, Wadlow has made a more ambitious movie than Truth or Dare, but he’s done it haphazardly. As the characters separate and intersect again, the movie generates idle thoughts about how Charlie Kaufman might have bent and twisted this material into something stranger or knottier. For that matter, in terms of basic suspense, any number of Lost episodes generate more tension out of strangers on a mysterious island than this supposed horror movie. Its creepy motifs include a decidedly unscary steady dripping sound, and glimpses of a peripheral figure who resembles a Grudge-style corpse-ghost.
Somehow, though, the movie doesn’t feel like a total rip-off. More so than with Truth or Dare, Wadlow does try to mix some emotion into the heightened fakeness — something Blumhouse’s Happy Death Day sequel did well. The only Fantasy Island character who approaches something like depth is Maggie Q’s Gwen, whose regrets manifest into something weightier than bikini models, free weed, or light torture porn. Her fantasy lacks obvious hubris (Roarke zeroes in on her for just that reason), and it turns out to be the most affecting of the bunch. Her storyline doesn’t always jibe with the rest of the movie, which is full of nonsensical mythology, clumsy exposition, rushed plot twists, and cheesy (though well-delivered) bro-banter from Hansen and Yang.
Gwen’s subplot does find common ground with the others, in that Wadlow seems to genuinely like his characters. So many youth-driven horror pictures seem eager to dole out facile, outsized punishment for characters’ stupidity, recklessness, or selfishness. But like 2019’s Blumhouse-esque Escape Room, Fantasy Island shows empathy for the people trapped in it. Most of them aren’t especially well-drawn, with Roarke’s puppetmaster routine looking particularly dull, given how many scenes Michael Peña has gleefully stolen in recent years. But there’s something generous about the way Wadlow, say, finds a recurring character type for Lucy Hale: Both Truth or Dare and Fantasy Island cast her as someone whose veneer (nice girl in the previous movie; cool girl in this one) covers up insecurities over what kind of person she might be, deep down. He makes her a figure of self-reflection, rather than a chintzy scream queen.
That’s ultimately the true novelty of Blumhouse’s PG-13 gimmick movies: Even when they don’t work very well, they tend to push horror in an accessible, oddly friendly direction. Horror fans are supposed to roll their eyes at this kind of softness in the genre, and demand something harder, bloodier, or crazier. (Wadlow has experience with applying that aesthetic to superheroes, as he presided over the self-impressed nastiness of Kick-Ass 2.) Certainly it would be hard to fault anyone for reaching the end of Fantasy Island and rolling their eyes so hard that they pass out. The movie essentially turns a potential nightmare into a barely edgy reboot pilot for a series that would really waste the hell out of Michael Peña’s time.
Still, is there anything really wrong with hanging semi-competent entertainment on a great hook, then selling it to bored teenagers? Fantasy Island isn’t as inventive as Blumhouse features like Happy Death Day, but the company seems to recognize that horror movies to puzzle over and immediately discard are a part of the genre’s tradition, too.
Fantasy Island is in theaters on February 14, 2020.